Do we need The Great Hack? After over a year of breathless media coverage, a congressional hearing, a British parliamentary inquiry, the pulverisation of a shady-as-fuck company, and the elevation of pink-haired whistleblower Christopher Wylie to the rank of H&M research director – do we really need another take on the Cambridge Analytica scandal?
We might. If anything, to finally put Cambridge Analytica in perspective; to give the whole messy affair a place in the chronology of the global backlash against Silicon Valley’s hold on our personal data. Whatever you think of the merits of the media hoo-ha that engulfed and then squashed the British political consultancy, Cambridge Analytica has become an unwitting symbol of the debate around the shortcomings of data monopolies – and an omen of possible future disasters. The Great Hack, the two-hour Netflix documentary out on July 24, recounts just how that symbol was born.
The directors, husband-and-wife duo Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, told me they wanted to bring us back to those riotous months in 2016, following Trump and Brexit, when “you had this hyper-anxiety about technology platforms, for the first time.” They started out planning to make a film about the 2014 Sony Pictures hack, but rumours and news about how the Trump campaign might have relied on some nasty digital techniques – targeting voters with hyper-tailored Facebook content pandering to their innermost beliefs, fears, and hopes – were swirling around. The name of Cambridge Analytica, a sleek political and data science consultancy cofounded by conservative billionaire Robert Mercer and Trump’s rightwing advisor Steve Bannon, kept popping up, raising some hackles.
The first set of hackles The Great Hack introduces us to belong to the American academic David Carroll. Affable and prone to cackling, he is the viewer’s everyman proxy in the film – although decidedly more clear-eyed. Carroll’s walkabouts around New York are haunted by animations of cry-laugh emojis, real-time social media notifications, and pixelated grey cinders representing the “data exhaust” humans can’t help oozing every time they Google something, hit like on a Facebook page, or contactlessly tap their credit cards.
Carroll worries we have been tricked into absent-mindedly relinquishing that information to internet corporations, who now have their fingers on our “emotional pulse”, which they’re using to confine users in divisive filter bubbles, and manipulate them into doing things like buying shoes, sharing hate-filled fake news, or voting Trump.
That inevitably brings Carroll to Cambridge Analytica, Trump’s data guys, who in their promotional material boasted about having 5,000 data points on 230 million American voters. Curious about his data and how it was gathered, Carroll hires a British lawyer to file a subject access request, asking the company to release all the information it collected about him. Of course, Cambridge Analytica refuses, and for good measure compares Carroll to “a member of the Taliban”; a bitter and eventually fruitless legal battle ensues.
Cambridge Analytica’s bravado is cut short when The Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr breaks a big story. This is the scandal as the general public knows it, with Wylie featured prominently on the front of newspapers. The former Cambridge Analytica data scientist revealed that the company had surreptitiously harvested the data of tens of millions of Facebook users – mostly in the US – without their knowledge. Facebook had been warned of the scheme, and it had asked Cambridge Analytica to delete the data, but never checked whether the company complied. Wylie’s allegation was that Cambridge Analytica had held onto the data nonetheless, and had used it to psychologically influence voters on Trump’s behalf.
In The Great Hack we see Wylie recounting all this in archival footage from The Guardian and the Parliament Live TV channel. But things could have gone in quite a different direction: Amer and Noujaim told me that Cadwalladr – with impressive foresight – introduced them to Wylie one year before he decided to go public.
For some time, it looked like Wylie himself would be the on-screen Virgil to the depths of Cambridge Analytica’s supposed data-mining underworld. It is easy to see that alternative movie shaping up as a glossier version of the Edward Snowden-centred documentary CitizenFour, with fewer cloak-and-dagger exploits and more musings about the future of democracy. Eventually, though, Wylie pulled out. That left The Great Hack stuck with Cambridge Analytica’s other self-styled whistleblower, former director of business development Brittany Kaiser.
Kaiser is a very hard character to like. When the movie catches up with her, she is in an infinity pool in Thailand, splashing about while wondering whether her former employer – with her help – might have undermined democracy. She initially challenges the notion that what Cambridge Analytica did with the Facebook data was wrong, but after a couple of friendly conversations she flips, going full pentito and hopping on a London-bound plane to give evidence before the Commons’ fake news inquiry.
What are we supposed to make of Kaiser’s conversion? Did she genuinely change her mind, or did she realise that a grand gesture was the only way to come out clean of the media storm rumbling on the horizon? Or then again, did she just see this as an opportunity to burnish her brand? After all, blowing the whistle on-camera earned her an appearance in The Great Hack, a six-figure contract for a forthcoming book, an op-ed (about data privacy!) published in the Financial Times, lots of publicity – and, possibly, the forgiveness of liberal friends who had spurned her for working on the Trump campaign.
While Kaiser does reveal some crucial information – like the fact that the pro-Brexit Leave.EU had initially planned to hire Cambridge Analytica to fight the referendum – it is not clear that her redemption is anything but a ruse. And the documentary’s fly-on-the-wall, non confrontational format falls short at dealing with that. Near the end of the movie, we are shown Kaiser reading a story about her meeting with Wikileaks’ Julian Assange after the US presidential election, ahead of which the organisation had leaked thousands of emails from the Clinton campaign. Kaiser swears that her meeting with Assange had nothing to do with the election – but we are never told what it was about.
Her role in other dubious, non-data-related, Cambridge Analytica contracts is also never explored. Nor is the fact that, weeks after her Commons testimony, Kaiser fell in with a crowd of bitcoin buffs, some of whom are on the record saying they have talked with Steve Bannon about creating a “populist” cryptocurrency; one of those people was also at The Great Hack London premiere last week, together with other friends of Kaiser’s. Amer and Noujaim told me that Kaiser’s story was supposed to represent the “journey of an insider coming out of this world [of data exploitation]”. But I was left wondering whether that arc was just a narrative device, and nothing more.
That is just one token of The Great Hack’s wider problem – narrative trumps everything else. Once we have established that Cambridge Analytica might have used Facebook data to target political ads during the 2016 US election, and that some pro-Brexit politicians thought about hiring the company, too, there is no more room for nuance. If, how, and to what extent the data was used becomes moot. Characters on screen assuredly declare that Cambridge Analytica “wreak[ed] havoc on the world”; that it “skewed democracy”; that the imbroglio is the start of “the data wars”.
What is missing is a footnote explaining that, rather than a major political incident per se, the Cambridge Analytica story works more as a neat representation of Facebook’s sloppiness with its users’ data. When Julian Wheatland, a former Cambridge Analytica executive, says that “there was always going to be a Cambridge Analytica”, he is telling the truth. The company – an admittedly unsavoury venture whose executives were captured on camera proposing a prospective client to entrap political rivals with Ukranian prostitutes – only served as a big neon arrow pointing to the issue of data security in the age of surveillance capitalism. It was a symptom, not a disease.
Still, we are given the impression that Cambridge Analytica single-handedly killed democracy. We are told that the company worked for Leave.EU – a fact which has been ruled out by the Electoral Commission, and actually denied by Kaiser herself in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. We are shown Wylie in Parliament, on a tirade about Brexit and cheating – but what the film omits is that he is talking about campaign spending, not Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook ads. We are proffered only glimpses of possible Russian connections.
The end result is a nebulous skein of facts, suspicions, connections, and what-ifs – a piece of art expounding on what the words “Cambridge Analytica” have come to signify for a lot of people, rather than a piece of journalism setting the record straight. That, in a way, was exactly Amer and Noujaim’s goal when they started filming: “We are not a news agency, this film is about the zeitgeist,” they told me. And in our confused times, the zeitgeist is bound to be confusing.
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